Giving Up Preaching

Photo by  Nycholas Benaia  on  Unsplash

Photo by Nycholas Benaia on Unsplash

Preaching is sometimes discussed as though it were an dying art. There are fewer people going to church and even fewer who are interested to listen to a sermon. Attention spans are about 30 seconds long and if you cannot tweet it then it will not be heard - or so the basic argument goes.

As a result of this there is a growing emphasis on the art of preaching. This is not without merit. Anyone dedicated to a craft is naturally interested to learn more about that craft. However, preaching as an art is not on the ropes.

At the most basic, preaching is speaking. Perhaps we could narrow the definition to speaking on a religious matter. To that end, preaching is alive and well. Preachers are a dime a dozen these days. And it is difficult to pin down what makes a good preacher beyond personal tastes. Preaching is not what the Church lacks.

The Church lacks proclamation.

Proclamation is at the root of the ministry of Jesus. Consider how Jesus inaugurated his ministry by reading the following from Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

Jesus did not come to preach. His was a ministry of proclamation. Even what we call the “Sermon on the Mount” is a title that later theologians called a section of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus did not preach sermons - he proclaimed Good News.

One of the ways to differentiate the the difference between preaching and proclaiming is the nature of the news. We preachers are very good at talking about “bad news”. We can describe the problems in our world, we can point out sin and speak of a broken world. This can be good preaching, but poor proclamation.

Proclamation describes “Good News”. You know when someone has moved from preaching to proclaiming when their words or actions highlight hope and mercy. We all have seen someone speaking or working and something happens, something comes over them and us that moves deep into our bones. It is that moment when you hear or see the very thing that confronts “bad news” rather than just describing it.

The best preachers I know are those who gave up preaching long ago in the pursuit to proclaim.

Preaching Rattlesnake-Rabbit Sausage

Not a paid endorsement, just delicious -

Not a paid endorsement, just delicious -

Every chef can make the staples. They can roast chicken, grill up steak, mix a vinaigrette, saute vegetables and know what to do with salt and pepper. They understand the basics of knife skills and presentation. What makes a chef’s food worth waiting in line for is the unique flair that the chef develops over time. Locally people will wait in line for Tim Love’s Rabbit-Rattlesnake Sausage. Chefs know how to make sausage, but this particular expression of sausage is what captures the imagination of foodies.

Likewise, every Christian preacher can preach the staples: God loves you, You are forgiven in the work of Jesus Christ. Death is not the end. The Holy Spirit guides the Church to the ends of the earth. Every preacher understands the basics of voice control and best practices of toast-masters. What makes the preacher worth listening to is not the staples but the unique perspective that God gifted to that preacher as they build on the staples.

Isaiah had a vision where God touched his lips with a hot coal, purifying and giving him a message. Preachers are each given a unique point of view on the Gospel message and is called to take those hot lips of fire and preach the Rabbit-Rattlesnake Sausage equivalent of sermons.

Too often, however, we preachers stick with the basics. We grind out quality sausage each week knowing it is good and filling, but it lacks the Spirit God burned onto our lips. What made Jesus so compelling is his dedication to preach his unique flavor. It was that unique flavor that people asked “on what authority” does this man act/teach?

As fine of a restaurant Applebee’s is, there is rarely a clamoring for more Applebee’s. There can be a line out the door at peak times of the week, but I have never heard, “I wish there was an Applebee’s that would move in so that I could get some great food!” Christianity does not need more Applebee preaching, there is already enough. What changes and challenges people is the unique flavor of the Gospel God has given to preachers.

Preach rattlesnake-rabbit sausage.

Preacher-Comic-Musician-Social Activist Gospel Loop

There is a bit of an interesting cycle in the preacher world that is perhaps not unique but nonetheless real. It goes like this:

The preacher wants to be a comic because there is something the preforming comedy that allows you to speak truth to power with a joke and a nod.

The comic wants to be a musician because they get the crowds and music has a broader reach to get their message out.

The musician wants to be a social activist because social work can transform peoples lives.

The social activist wants to be able to inspire people’s hearts and not just their hands and thus gives speeches to crowds - looking a lot like a preacher.

Photo by  Eduardo Sánchez  on  Unsplash

Photo by Eduardo Sánchez on Unsplash

And the cycle is complete.

As I read the four gospels, I see this cycle at play. Luke is the social activist who desires to raise our awareness of the margins. Matthew is the preacher who builds the whole gospel on five sermons of Jesus. Mark is the comic being able to speak truth to power with a little joke (“Don’t tell anyone I am the messiah” - Jesus). John is among the most poetic and even dare I say, musical gospels we have.

How to Shrink Your Church - by Tim Suttle

A few days ago, the recently retired Rev. Mike Slaughter tweeted this little article (gem) from 2011. 

In the event you did not read the article in full, the author is a pastor named Tim Suttle. His main argument is stated in the opening paragraph:

Pastors and churches spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year attending conferences, buying books, hiring consultants, advertisers and marketers, all to try and accomplish one thing: to increase attendance -- to be a bigger church. I'm absolutely convinced this is the wrong tack.

Rev. Suttle argues that the drive to get larger churches is fueled by two sources: Sentimentality and pragmatism.

He defines sentimentality as: "tell me something that will make me feel better".

There are many seminarians who have a ton of conversation about the creeping sentimentality in a church. The sentimentality is very real conversation that needs to happen, but my interests reside in the conversation about pragmatism.

He defines pragmatism as "tell me something that will work".

The emphasis on the pragmatic is something that has come into the mind of anyone who has taken a class and thought, "why do I need to know this? I will never use this in my life!" While seminaries and church leadership work to diminish sentimentality in the church, these same bodies work to elevate pragmatic.

For instance, every preaching class I have ever taken or any church leader that I have head speak about preaching there is an emphasis on the practical. Every sermon needs a "take away" or a "life application" for the people. The assumption is that unless the preacher can give a practical application of the sermon then the sermon is severely lacking. Preachers need to speak to people's heads (teach), heart (inspire) and hands (action). 

Photo by  Silvestri Matteo  on  Unsplash

If pragmatism continues to be idolized in the preaching moment then the proclamation of the Gospel will devolve into a Jesus-sheen TED Talk. Or even worse, preaching will move from a symbiotic relationship to a co-dependent one. Where preacher and congregation are less interested in the difficult process of dying to ourselves and more interested in weekly Christian life hacks.

I encourage you to read the Suttle article which lays all this out much better.